Circ study coming soon, state says

Planners worried about slow progress

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

The long-awaited look at alternatives to the long-delayed Circumferential Highway will be released soon.

That was the message last week from a state highway official to a regional planning group weary of waiting for the slow-moving study.

The governing board of the Chittenden County Metropolitan Planning Organization met on April 18 with Ken Robie, project manager for what is now called the Circ-Williston Transportation Project.

Robie updated the board on a study that takes a detailed look at several road projects designed to ease traffic in and around Williston. The study now covers 10 options, which include the originally proposed Circumferential Highway as well as various other designs.

Scott Johnstone, CCMPO’s executive director, said board members had heard little about the study since last year and so asked Robie to provide a briefing. He said the board was also concerned about the state’s failure to budget money for construction of whatever option is eventually picked.

Johnstone said “frustration” was the word that best describes several board members’ feelings about the study. Many others, he said, share that emotion.

“When I talk to folks in the business community and the public at large, that’s what I hear from them, too,” he said. “Opinions vary on what should be built. But the thing that cuts through it with everybody is that it’s time to make a decision.”

The state announced last May that the study, which was originally scheduled to be completed by the end of 2006, would not be finished until this spring. Robie said he now expects the detailed assessment of each option to be released in late spring or early summer.

Robie acknowledged that the study has progressed more slowly than originally planned and that the CCMPO board was worried the state did consider it a priority.
“They were getting antsy because there have been no major public hearings since February of last year,” Robie said. “They really hadn’t heard much since last year. So silence, of course, made them nervous.”

Money originally set aside for Circ construction was eliminated from the governor’s proposed budget so funding could be shifted into maintaining existing roads, Robie said.

Johnstone said the CCMPO board, which formulates on a four-year transportation plan, was told the state did not plan on building the Circ or any of its alternatives during that time frame due to an anticipated legal battle over whatever option is chosen.

As originally designed, the Circumferential Highway was supposed to carve a 16-mile arc from Williston to Colchester. To date, only a four-mile stretch of the highway in Essex has been built.

The options considered by the study can be broadly grouped into three categories: build the Circ or another road along the originally planned route; widen Route 2A and/or replace traffic lights with roundabouts; or combine elements of both. Another option is to build nothing.

Over the past few months, the state had added two alternatives to the original list of eight.

The new options include a variation on the original Circ design that uses a diamond-shaped interchange at Mountain View Road. The idea is to lessen the highway’s impact on wetlands, Robie said.

The other new alternative features an exit at the intersection of U.S. 2. The original Circ design called for an underpass with no access to Route 2.

The delay in the study – formally called an Environmental Impact Statement – has already added $1 million to the study’s original $6.3 million budget. Robie did not rule out even larger study expenditures in the future.

Progress has been slow because of the many options, Robie said. Nationally, he said, similar studies typically include only three or four options.

The state and its consultant are also proceeding carefully because they think any number of groups could sue to stop construction – no matter what option is chosen. Vermont Transportation Secretary Neale Lunderville told the Observer earlier this year that he considered the study a “litigation defense document.”

In fact, the EIS process started after a coalition of environmental groups called the Smart Growth Collaborative sued to stop the construction of the Circ Highway until an updated study was completed. The last EIS was done in the 1980s, and the group said it was out of date.

A federal judge in May 2004 ruled in favor of the environmentalists. The decision halted preliminary work on the Williston segment of the highway, which would have run between Interstate 89 to Vermont 117 in Essex.

Robie said a trio of public workshops to answer questions about the study will be scheduled in May. He said the detailed assessment of each option will be released a few weeks after the meetings are held.

One “preferred alternative” will then be chosen. The Federal Highway Administration has the final say on what project is finally built.

The Circ as originally designed enjoyed widespread support. Johnstone said previous surveys by the CCMPO showed roughly 70 percent of Chittenden County residents favor construction of the highway.